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Listen and Let Lead: Dr. Meredith Shockley-Smith

Whether it be students struggling with education, Black mothers losing babies, or a community beset by any number of issues, Dr. Meredith Shockley-Smith’s proposed solutions always start the same way: Listen to those most impacted. Let them lead. 

Simple but true, this asset-based mindset has guided Meredith, an alum of Public Allies Cincinnati (‘07), through every step of her winding career in service. Now helping to curb an infant mortality crisis in her home county, the impact of her approach may quite literally be saving lives.

Although she now carries a doctorate, college did not always come easy for Meredith. “I did not love school and school did not love me,” she jokes. Especially unlovable in her eyes was the “banking method,” in which students are expected to bank often-arbitrary information and then withdraw it at a moment’s notice come test time.

Happy to be done with undergrad, Meredith joined Public Allies and became immersed in her local community, with all its challenges and unsung heroes. “Public Allies sent me on a journey I could not have even imagined,” she says. “The connection to people who were like-minded about change was so powerful. To this day, they motivate me.”

School was apparently not done with Meredith, though, who was placed at the University of Cincinnati for her service year. Tasked with administering a scholarship program for underrepresented, low-income, and first generation students, she saw much of herself in those she served. Meredith recalled something a professor had said to her: “You have these complaints about education, so why don’t you fix it?” Taking the challenge to heart, she made it her mantra to “support and celebrate” students, and ultimately earned a Ph.D. doing just that.

In between studying, as an act of self-care, Meredith started a weekly potluck at her house with a few Public Allies friends. For over six years, this “family dinner” had an open-door policy, welcoming everyone from professors to folks experiencing homelessness. While always fun, Meredith began to realize how this ongoing ritual was in fact building a diverse and robust network, one that she draws on to this day.

Now Director of Community Strategies at Cradle Cincinnati, Meredith is combining her skills in social service and creating “sacred spaces.” Based in Hamilton County, which has ranked in the bottom 10% nationally for infant mortality, the organization’s mission is to “help every baby in Cincinnati live to celebrate their first birthday.” Meredith and her teammates (many of whom are fellow Public Allies alumni) have been heartened by a recent trend in the right direction. In fact, 2019 saw the lowest number of Black infant deaths on record.

What does Meredith attribute this success to? Listening to those closest to the problem, of course: “We are asking Black women what they need, and then centering their leadership so that they can create the change they see fit,” she says. Much like with her potlucks, Meredith welcomes them into her community. Through education and wellness programming, she tries to “give space fit for a queen, something Black women may have not gotten prior.”

Despite her education, Meredith never leads with degrees, and despite her success at Cradle Cincinnati, she gives all the credit to the women in her program. In every instance, she strives to empower the leadership of others. The result has been a snowball effect, where her constituents become recruiters, building a community that is changing Cincinnati and beyond.